Letter: My Big Concern Is Gentrification

Cousin s Market, Downtown Amherst. Photo: Cousin's Market Facebook

Today’s paper says that the issue of zoning revision is stalled, and while it is, I’d like to present some “community input.”

My big concern is the gentrification of the town and the limited business tax revenue, given the amount of land tied up in tax-exempt educational institutions.  Residential property tax burdens contribute to both problems. I could not afford to live in Amherst had I tried to buy here today.  

A vibrant community of this size should have affordable housing integrated into mixed-use buildings and residential neighborhoods in the center, not ghettoed off in separate developments on the periphery of downtown.  It should also have small and minority-owned businesses–like Cousins Market, Amherst Typewriter, Kay Baker’s Antiques and King’s Tailoring Shop, integrated into downtown. These make a commercial district variable and lively, and Amherst is not big enough to have segregated businesses OR housing. But most of them have been forced out by the multiple, indistinguishable Archipelago developments, which offer only expensive/upscale apartments, unaffordable to low-income families but welcoming to bunched-up undergraduate populations whose lifestyles make others stay away. So far, their business space is rented at high price to corporations that have no use for display storefront windows and do not draw foot traffic. 

The unfortunate effect (especially at One East Pleasant) is of a faceless, confusing fortress, completely out of character with the townscape. (I do not object to the scale per se, but to its undifferentiated design; nor to the lack of resident parking–that is their one progressive feature.) What is missing in reality (even pre-Covid reality) is the welcoming brightness and human activity that Archipelago includes in its design drawings. It is worth considering why this is.

I hope these ideas will be considered in your upcoming discussions.

Sherrill Harbison

P.S. I had a response from Steve Schreiber, excerpted below:

“I think you bring up a lot of good points, especially the fact that artisanal businesses (eg, shoe repair) will never be replaced by Amazon—thus they can and should play key roles in the life of commercial areas.

“It’s pretty extraordinary that in the last several generations (I’m thinking 100 years) the only substantial private buildings constructed in downtown were the Tucker Taft building of the mid 1980s (replacing a gas station?) and the 4 Archipelago projects of the 2010s (3 were built on vacant lots). Had Amherst developed more organically, then we wouldn’t be putting all of our hopes and dreams on Archipelago

“I am well aware that there is narrative in Amherst that wants us to believe that the Archipelago buildings are dorms, but they are not. I am pretty sure that my 70 year old friends who live in those buildings are not undergraduates. In any case, I would much rather have said-undergraduates living there, than crowding into the houses in our neighborhood… 

“Like you, I am very concerned about the loss of small businesses in downtown. How sad that Amherst Copy moved to Hadley. On the other hand, Hadley Cleaners moved to Amherst…” 

Sherrill Harbison has lived in Amherst for 45 years. She taught Scandinavian Studies at UMass, and has worked in fields as disparate as journalism,editing, catering, and theatrical costuming.

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